Belgian politics versus COVID-19: a scoreboard

Opinion/ Politics

26 mei 2021
Auteur(s): Frank Van Damme
Thesis: the net contribution of Belgian politics in countering the pandemic has been a negative one.

By Frank van Damme

Contributing Writer

Setting up the game board

The Belgian government has produced various laws and regulations aimed at ensuring minimum contact and fewer infections of COVID between people. These are being adopted by the government (or National Security Council, or consulting committee) regularly. Apart from how legitimate some of these so-called measures are, do they positively affect the intended goal? Altogether, we'd have been better off to put the entire governmental shebang into the fridge for a year (and preemptively put the provincial administrations in a cell). This thought experiment unfolds as follows: we shave away the corona related rules from the political decision-making and evaluate the situation.

First aid for epidemics

Let's take March 2020 as the beginning of the crisis. Marc Van Ranst and his small band of virologists taking a hold on the public debate from day one was not due to political influence. Van Ranst is a KU Leuven virologist, member of the advisory board called the "Risk Assessment Group" and media darling in epidemics past and present. Consequently, we'd have seen the same constant stream of expert information (and sensationalism) in the media. So, with or without the messages in these recommendations being moulded into law, we would be compelled to follow up on them to the same degree, but not literally forced.

Our medical expert team would have had a lively debate among them at times. However, we would not have seen the level of discordance that we got from the policy and communication of the authorities. Case in point: the weathervane discussion around face masks, which were in turns useless, unavailable, and then compulsory. The Belgian authorities, mind you, had kept a strategic emergency stock of face masks for years to face precisely the current scenario. However, for unclear reasons it got destroyed a few years before this epidemic. The ones they finally supplied turned out to contain toxic substances.

Mouth masks have proven benefits in certain situations, but they are already subject to discussion and mistrust. They cannot really use more bad press. Hence, even without governmental restrictions the populace would have known that passing by the neighbours, visiting grandma, or having contact with multiple groups of friends will give the virus better chances of spreading. There would be no need for specific and seemingly delineated norms for it. In principle, this could make things somewhat easier for people who have trouble comprehending what is expected from them. The content of these regulations, on the contrary, proves that trying to circumscribe common sense with specific rules quickly becomes an exercise in absurdity. However you try to organise "contact bubbles", the logic only ever half works. For clarity's sake: none of the foregoing is meant as an argument about the benefits of keeping a distance, avoiding the proximity of people "close" to you, etc. per se. Doing such things has proven to statistically diminish infection rates and spare people suffering.

Nevertheless, the added value of specific rules is disputable. So, it happens that behaviour based on goodwill and spontaneous altruism (principles that people can adhere to much longer!) is getting replaced by one based on norming, repression, and micromanagement. I do not believe in the reasoning that norms for having human contact will necessarily always be imperfect. After all, we are necessitated to mould the criteria into rules one way or the other. If we talk about laws, we talk about challenging separations between yes and no, and about sanctions.

Appealing to people's common sense is also often an exercise in disappointment. Still, it is a tradeoff. If you let people steer their behaviour by rules, then they will aim their attention at the control being imposed by the government and not the goal behind it (and still transgress them continuously) as shown by research on the lack of effectiveness of fines in reducing tardiness of parents in picking their children from daycare. Additionally,  in the long run, people will get fed up with the "rule-ification" and incessant intrusion into the private sphere leading them to start complying less strictly. On the other hand, if you start by providing intrinsic motivation, people will indeed have the freedom to handle it loosely or strictly – but the effect will probably last longer. Are you still not going to your cousin because you do not want to infect half a family or because your government says you're not allowed?

All these are called exceptional measures for exceptional times. Still, in the end, it is just a business-as-usual pattern in Belgium. When the government in this country wants to attain a specific goal or cause a change in the behaviour of its citizens, it normally goes about it as follows:: it scrambles together an amalgam of half-related rules and regulations, which altogether make sure that everyone gets an aversion to the original idea. In this case:  containing the virus. Examples are plentiful. Ask any Belgian.

Project status: failed

Contact tracing was a complete farce and has probably just yielded a random sample of people, collected from phone numbers left at restaurants. For those wanting more details, the "Pano" TV report doesn't leave a shred intact of the sloppy work, waste of money, and utter uselessness of the Belgian contact tracing story. Thorough contact tracing should determine pretty much to the minute and the centimetre who has been in contact with whom. However, the government only provided an app based on Bluetooth with a huge error margin.

Core tasks where the authorities could have made a difference, such as strategic supplies of protective equipment or a rescue plan for elderly homes, have completely failed.

In schools, political influence was mainly limited to closing them during the first wave, from mid-March 2020 until after the Easter holidays. The reopening of schools has not led to a viral resurgence (luckily!) but did result in children with significant learning delays. Later in the pandemic, school closures have been relatively short-term and would have remained small and local with no political intervention (thankfully, we had no further long school closures!). Support to make up for the disadvantages of distance schooling could have been offered, but that has not happened at all – 9 months into a pandemic is just a little late to write cheerful vision texts aboutMost other European countries have deployed more or less the same arsenal of means in the same ad hoc fashion. In the meantime, we've seen a few rare examples of countries who did manage to face the problem effectively. Cuba had a plan on the table in January 2020, has kept testing the population systematically with monk-like patience and now only counts 23 covid dead per million inhabitants. Iceland, a country with a population of only 360.000 and becoming a pretty popular holiday destination, has remained open for tourism. It has created a genetic profile of the total population with viruses and everything. So, basically, nothing escaped their attention. Despite an influx of people from other countries, they have less than a tenth of our corona fatality count.

The role of citizens

Here we see the stark contrast between responsibility together with bottom-up civic spirit  and the painful shortfalling of the political top. Measures were taken by organisers of concerts and performances to limit visitor numbers, cancel certain events, and predate the state-imposed ones. They have also proven to know much better how to manage events "safely" than any government. The cooperation of HORECA (hotel, restaurant and cafe sector), the imposed closures notwithstanding, should also be called exemplary. Additionally, it is in their own interest to offer their customers (who are evidently afraid of the virus) an environment where they can be at ease, reassuring them that they do not run any unnecessary risk. Statistics are sparse, but most sources that are not based on self-reporting speak of less than 5% of infections being caught in bars and restaurants.

Yet, all that the people working in the HORECA sector got in return are months of closures. In March 2020, it looked like nothing else could be done but to reduce public life to a minimum, a decision I could and can still understand. One cannot say all these fans the flames of enthusiasm from the base. After a year of pandemic, the cultural sector is still asking explicitly to be involved as a partner and help experts in "unlocking" public life. The government, however, seems terrified to commit to a timeline, roadmap, or even to "adequately communicate  prolonging the measures apart from publication in the Staatsblad. In short: the authorities are denying the cultural sector the trust they deserve. They only trust themselves and a handful of hyper-specialised medical experts.

The hangover after the party

With their suffocating policies, the Belgian governments have precipitated COVID deaths instead of avoiding them. They have provoked a loss of billions (35 and counting) of euros.They also caused depressions on such a large scale that Belgian psychologists have given up on accepting more patients into their waiting lists. By draconically persecuting the most bizarre offences that are victimless crimes, they have destroyed their own credibility and that of the entire battle against COVID-19. They have made civic spirit erode to the point that the population ascribes them a cynical indifference at best.

I'm not even getting started on the infractions of fundamental rights, blatantly ignoring court rulings judging the illegal, unconstitutional status of the COVID regulations. Nevermind the tainted image we will have to live with as a nation. Democracy, in general, is getting a beating worldwide, and The Economist labels Belgium as "flawed democracy" on their democracy score. Season this mix to taste with exhilarating tidings about fines for kot students because the police can decide on the spot what constitutes a household, and if a kot is one, or about seven 14-year-olds thrown in a cold cell for a night for a corona infringement. News flash: locking up minors is only allowed in exceptional circumstances and following an order from a juvenile judge.

Bring Spot: There will be a vaccine

The government does have a role in the massive purchase of vaccinations with warranties for price and quantities. Well, we now pay 6 Pfizer doses to get 5... and problems with negotiating delivery terms got us off to a slow start. Still, it now looks like a fully vaccinated new year is feasible. The order of vaccination (first elderly homes, then caretakers, etc.) would have probably played out the same if left to hospitals and doctors to decide. The most positive intervention of the government must be making the vaccines available for free, so a fair bit of people will go for a shot who would otherwise not see the point. One could still argue that a COVID vaccination would be paid back by the mutualities anyway (they all cost less than 15€ a dose), but at this point, that's nitpicking.

The mass roll-out of vaccinations (first in history while the epidemic is still going on worldwide) also can become a train wreck. Why? In a normal, not regulated-to-the-bone situation, you could start living a little more relaxed when vaccinated as a citizen. A strict framework of rules can complicate that process. These new rules would allow selective "relaxations" based on a proof of vaccination. As such, we would live in an awful dystopian situation where people can get more privileges than others. And the alternative, again, is applying the same dumb rules to everyone in totally different life situations. Just stop it now. It really is enough.